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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Feb 23

February 25th, 2016

Feb 23

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A restless night, punctuated by snuffling dogs, moaning cattle, and some early rising Nepalis. The hike out for this part of the Helambu trek is pretty much all road walking and it turns out Timbu is the first stop for buses heading to Melamchi and even on to Kathmandu. Hmmm, the adventure of a famous Nepali bus ride compared to a dusty 18 km road walk to Melamchi– easy decision. The man at the bus stop said the first one left at 5:30 am with the others starting at seven and running on the hour. He added that the 5:30 was a fast bus to Kathmandu. Although I’m in no great hurry to get back to the city, it seemed a good idea to catch a bus that wouldn’t take all day, so I set my tent alarm early, though the livestock served that purpose just as well. For a moment it was just like being back on a New Zealand trail, waking in my tent, efficiently packing up my gear, folding the tent, and setting out in the early morning light, but my walk was just up to the stop where a bus was parked. First to arrive, I walked around the bus and was startled by the voice of the driver sitting in the darkened vehicle. It operates with a team of three men who sleep on the bus. They take up the seats and make beds on the floor and in the driver’s area. I was early and disturbed their last moments of sleep, but they soon were bustling around putting things back in order, starting up the bus, collecting 280 NPR from me, then honking their horn loudly and repeatedly. Apparently the entire village is awakened every morning at 5:20 with the imminent departure horn. Soon we were on our way, the bus tossing and rocking through deep ruts, around huge boulders recently rolled into the road, and horn blaring more often than not. One of the team stationed himself at the side door which was held open by a u-clamp. They stopped wherever someone flagged them down, occasionally piling into the aisles huge bags of grain to be taken to Melamchi. Many of the early passengers were schoolchildren, so for a while it felt and sounded like a schoolbus. Given the circumstances of their homes, which often remain temporary steel shelters with the cooking and washing done outside, the students’ school clothes were crisp and clean as if straight from the dry cleaners. Soon the bus filled up so I had to sit with my pack on my lap as I’d didn’t want to risk putting it on the roof (which was managed by one of the team– they tended to rotate stations). Of course the seats are small and my shins banged hard against the one in front with every bump. The windshield was decorated with red tassels, and soon Nepali music blared loudly accompanied by the horn. We made stops that were barely stops– the bus would slow a bit, some hopped off, some on. The three drivers were particularly adept at snagging the rail while the bus was moving fast, like freight-hoppers nailing a drag. Down the river valley we went, bouncing on a deeply rutted dirt road. The first time we changed drivers I learned why it was the fast bus. They drove the same route as the others, only faster. The main driver would speed up, blast the horn, go into a controlled drift in the gravel, then accelerate on the short straights. As the morning wore on, the school children were replaced by older workers on their way into the valley and those like me going all the way to the city. I found myself sitting for most of the journey with a fascinating man who had been in Melamchi visiting his parents and was on his way back to his office in Kathmandu. An active leader in one of the major political parties, he also was active in helping the rural communities get back on their feet by building schools and other town structures.

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We talked on across the landscape which, as we circled east of Kathmandu changed, flattening out geographically and clearly not as heavily affected by the quake. We passed many brickyards where I could see workers molding and stacking clay bricks and tiles, soon passing a valley with tall pot-bellied brick kiln chimneys smoking away, surrounded by bright red bricks. A lot of building needs to happen here. After a few hours, we turned onto a road paved by the Chinese government connecting Tibet with Kathmandu. In a short while the bus began to make a noise that sounded like a worn-out bearing. The driver turned into a lot next to a truck dealership, one of the three picked up some wrenches and in about twenty minutes switched out the universal joint on the drive shaft. Most of the passengers didn’t even get off the bus, and soon we were on our way. Arriving at the city, my new friend showed me where to find a taxi to get back to Thamel, and we parted reluctantly, such a kind man. With my backpack, dusty shoes, and five-day stench, I found an outside table at my favorite coffee shop, ordered lunch– a club sandwich, not Dal Bhat– and arranged lodging at my favorite hotel for the next week. Kathmandu feels more comfortable now, and all the folks at hotel smiled at my return, making me feel welcome. Had a good talk with former mountain guide who had not been in the Helambu region since the quake and had many questions I was happy to try to answer. Hot shower, great dinner at the New Orleans Cafe and of course early to bed in a place that did not feature cattle.

T. Hugh Crawford

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